About the author:
Lou Cutell began his career as a comic actor almost 50 years ago in shows such as Young Abe Lincoln, Little Me and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. He has appeared in more than 75 movies and 200 TV shows, from Wedding Crashers and Will & Grace to Seinfeld (as a proctologist known as “the Assman”). Now he's is back on the New York stage in a sex comedy with the inspired title Viagara Falls, co-written by Cutell and Brazilian screenwriter Joao Machado Set on the 77th birthday of Cutell’s character, a widower named Charley who longs for one final night of passion (and has procured a stash of little blue pills to make it possible), the play co-stars Bernie Kopell (a.k.a. randy Dr. Adam Bricker of The Love Boat) as his timid neighbor and Teresa Ganzel as a prostitute catering to an older clientele. Cutell shared the story of his play's rise—sorry, we couldn't help it—with Broadway.com.
I have never really considered myself a writer. I always wanted to be an actor, and that's what I’ve made my living doing all these years. I grew up in a family that only spoke Italian, so by the time I got to kindergarten, I was a gibbering mess. English was not my favorite subject, and writing required lots of discipline And yet somehow I made it through UCLA and obtained a teaching credential in English and Drama. Don't ask me how!
About 20 years ago, I was asked to perform in an old Sicilian classic, The Aire of the Continente, in Sicilian. The part was a gem, and I must say I performed it well. I decided to translate the play into English, so with the help of my Sicilian-speaking aunt and mother, I began the daunting task of taking a script with 25 characters and reducing it to 11. The result, which I titled The Sicilian Bachelor, played the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles for seven months and got rave reviews. Jimmy Doolittle, the impresario, wanted to take it further, but an 11-character play is a budget breaker in today's market. I shelved the play, although it is done in some regional theaters.
I tell you all this because having a hit encouraged me as a playwright, and it eventually led to the writing of Viagara Falls. (My UCLA professors would have been proud.) Another important link is my membership on the committee that considers foreign language films for Academy Award nominations. I learned a lot from watching the plot developments of these well done but obscure movies. It was at one of these screenings that I met a 28-year-old Brazilian, Joao Machado, who said, "You are perfect for a role in a play I have written." I read Joao’s treatment and realized the idea was good, my part could be special and the ending was dynamite—but it was most definitely not yet a play. I showed it to my good friend Don Crichton, one of the stars of the old Carol Burnett Show (and our future director), who said, "If you have the time, work on it!" I threw it on my desk and forgot about it.
A few months later, tasting the possibility of a good role for myself, I went to the computer and out flowed the first five pages of Viagara Falls. I showed it to Don and he said, "Not bad...keep working on it!" Smarting from my experience with The Sicilian Bachelor, I kept the play to three characters. Two years later, a first draft was ready for a reading. I would play Charley, who decides to call in a lady of the evening on his 77th birthday, and I asked Dick Van Patten (of Eight Is Enough fame) to play Moe, Charley’s best friend and reluctant partner in crime. Because I envisioned the prostitute Jacqueline Tempest to be bigger than life, I used a rather obese lady to fill that role. I gathered 40 of my closest friends in my living room for the first of about 20 readings. I was quite nervous, but our performances got lots of laughs and sustained applause. I figured my friends were just being kind.
Later, in the kitchen, as I was preparing pasta with garlic and olive oil, my guests gathered round me and told me how much they really enjoyed the play. Don offered some great suggestions, but kept saying, "Work on it!" Subsequent readings garnered the same sustained applause, assuring me that there was something going on within this play beyond the obvious farce, shtick and drama. It must have hit a chord, because I even noticed a tear or two. A final reading before an audience of 400 featured Harold Gould (of The Sting) as Moe, me as Charley and the incomparable Teresa Ganzel (co-star of the movie The Toy and one of Johnny Carson’s favorite sidekicks) as Jacqueline. The play got a standing ovation, something none of us had ever seen at a staged reading. This time, I felt joyous because I knew it was ready.
Through Don, superstar costume designer Bob Mackie read the play, loved it and said he would be honored to come on board. Not only did he design our costumes but also the now-famous Viagara Falls logo! Syd Litwack, the award-winning set designer and UCLA friend, created the set. We began out-of-town tryouts at the Indian Wells Theater in Palm Springs and became the first attraction at a new theater on the Palm Desert campus of California State University. In the show’s final week, hundreds of people were turned away because we were completely sold out. Through it all I kept rewriting, because my belief is, "If it's not on the page, it's not on the stage." Of course, Don kept saying, "Work on it!"
By the time, we got to productions in Calgary and Toronto, Bernie Kopell (beloved from The Love Boat) had joined Teresa and me as Moe. Then along came Robert Nederlander Jr., John Finocchio and Stanley Browne, who saw the show and are now producing it at the Little Shubert Theater on 42nd Street. It doesn't get better than that, does it?